Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Everyone Counts.

At 9 pm, I am usually winding down for the day and getting ready for bed.

Last night at 9 pm, I took a shower and put on my warmest clothes.  I was hyper-aware of my warm cozy apartment, the pleasure of taking a shower, the plentiful food in my cabinets.

And then I headed outside to join 3,000 of my neighors and take part in New York City's Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) 2011.  Each year the city does a census of homeless people in public places to evaluate their outreach efforts.  Every single street of every borough is covered on foot by teams of volunteers.

I met my friend E at Hunter College, where we crowded with scores of other volunteers and were trained on what to do.  Stay with your team.  Follow the route on your map. Stay in public areas. Approach individuals respectfully.  Ask the questions on the form.  Determine if this person would be considered homeless.  Listen to your instincts if a situation feels unsafe.  Ask the individual if they would like to be taken to a shelter.  If yes, call this number.  Wait with the person until the outreach workers arrive with their van.  If an individual appears to be in danger-- exposed limbs, close to a busy roadway, incoherent-- call 911.  Tonight is Code Blue, meaning that it's very cold and you should wake any person who appears to be sleeping to make sure they are okay.

The teams of 4-5 volunteers received their instructions, their assigned area, and were asked to start their walk at exactly 12:15 am.  E and I were on the same team, headed up by an engineer who worked for the city.  We had two NYU freshman to round out our group.  Our assignment was relatively easy-- three consecutive routes in the mid East 60s.  Other groups were assigned areas that required police escort.

We walked quite awhile without encountering any homeless people.  About halfway through our route, we came across a disheveled man sitting on cardboard on the steps of a row house.  Our leader approached the man while we stood a respectful distance away.  About half way through the questioning, the guy broke into a smile and congratulated us.  He was a decoy, placed there to ensure that every street was indeed being covered.   We received a sticker to show that we "passed".  We started walking again, and saw another gentleman, this one also proving to be a decoy.  Our group started to wonder if we would complete our assignment without encountering any people who were truly homeless.  We kept walking.

Ten minutes later, a figure emerged from a dark stretch of sidewalk, pushing a shopping cart overflowing with bags of recyclable cans.  Weathered face, tattered clothes, irrepressible spirit.  One of the students approached the man.  Would he be willing to answer some questions?  The gentleman immediately launched into a diatribe about the terrible way he had been treated at some shelters.  We listened and asked questions.  We asked if he would like to get a ride to a nearby center.  He consented, and the leader called for the outreach workers.  While our group waited, he regaled us with stories in his Scottish brogue.  He said he came to the US to serve in Vietnam, and later was invited to guard the White House.

What part of his stories were true, and what parts he believed to be true, is a question that will never be answered and of course does not need to be answered.  What was important is that a group of strangers bonded that evening, listening to each other's stories late into a bitter and snowy night, and made sure that all of us had a warm and safe place to sleep.  


  1. Thank you for sharing this moment in your life. Your kindness will radiate throughout this city--each gesture of compassion, no matter what the action, is welcomed with open arms into universal energy.

  2. Pretty awesome cuz! You make a difference and if everyone makes a small difference, together it's a big difference!